French voters face tough choices in landmark election

Polling stations opened on Saturday in French overseas territories and voting will continue Sunday on the mainland in one of the most unpredictable presidential elections in France’s history.

Opinion polls showed a tight race among four top contenders vying for the two places in the May 7 runoff that will decide who becomes the next head of state. But the polls also showed the future of France was largely in the hands of the one out of three voters who were undecided — as a deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees in Paris clouded the last days of campaigning.

Political campaigning was banned from Saturday across France, and online, as polling stations opened in the far-flung Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon and French Guiana, as well as in the Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Reunion in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

Unemployment and the economy topped voters’ concerns as first-round ballots are cast for one of 11 candidates in the most nail-biting elections in generations. Security was also a prominent concern after a wave of extremist attacks on French soil, including Thursday’s attack by a gunman who fatally shot a police officer in Paris before being killed by security forces.

Polls suggested far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. However, conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon appeared to be closing the gap, as was the far-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The campaign just ended has overturned traditional French politics in a number of ways. Macron, 39, became the front-runner even though the party he founded is barely over a year old and he has never before run for elective office.

Jostling with him for first place is Le Pen, 48, who moved her father’s National Front from unacceptable in polite society to the centre of the conversation — if still holding anti-immigration and anti-euro positions.

Fillon, 63, of the Republicans, the centre-right establishment party, lost his lead in the polls after a legal tussle over whether he hired his wife for a parliamentary staff job for which she did no work. And Melenchon of the extreme left unexpectedly moved to fourth place in part because the 65-year-old’s campaign featured extensive use of social media, not to mention campaign appearances by hologram and a video game.

“The election has been astonishing,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor of political science at SciencesPo in Paris. “Whatever happens we are in for profound political change.”

A BVA poll conducted on Thursday and Friday showed Le Pen and Macron tied with 23%, ahead of Melenchon with 19.5% and Fillon on 19%. A Bloomberg composite of French polls shows Macron has 24.5% support, while Le Pen holds 22.5%. While Fillon and Melenchon have the backing of 19.5% and 18.5% of the electorate respectively, the margins of error leave room for an upset, pollsters say. Socialist Benoit Hamon, whose party currently controls the presidency and the parliament, is at 7%.

The mad-dash campaigning of the last few weeks came to a premature end on Friday hours after the Champs-Elysees gun attack by 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, the Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday.

Le Pen and Fillon cancelled their last campaign events on Friday over security concerns. Macron did too, but also accused his rivals of trying to capitalise on the attack with their anti-immigration, tough-on-security messages.

Some people believe French stoicism will prevent a lurch to the right, though the shooting attack and security worries dominated newspaper headlines and the 24-hour television news cycle.

“These 48 hours are not going to change everything. … Terrorism is now an everyday occurrence. It’s permanent, 24 hours a day. So we’re not afraid. If we’re believers, believers in freedom, we must live with it,” said Marise Moron, a retired doctor.

Others, fearful that Le Pen has been strengthened by the instability, said they would shift their votes from fringe candidates and try to vote strategically to keep the far-right out of power.

“With an attack such as this one, I think the National Front will get a good score. Therefore, I’m going to change my intention and I’m going to cast a useful vote. Either Melanchon, or Macron,” said physics teacher Omar Ilys, 44.

Authorities in Paris have offered additional guards for hundreds of polling stations in the capital, which will come on top of an already major security plan involving some 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers nationwide.

Le Pen, 48, has been calling for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the European Union and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

“This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat.

Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom Fillon has portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, said France was paying for the cuts in intelligence jobs cuts made when Fillon was prime minister between 2007 and 2012.

Election Timeline

Polls in mainland France open at 8am local time (1pm Thailand time) on Sunday and close at 8pm (1am Monday Thailand time). Both the Interior Ministry and pollsters who participate in counts are expected to publish preliminary results within an hour of polls closing. Historically these numbers have immediately showed who the finalists were, though races have rarely been this close, with this many candidates.